Sometimes it is necessary to “Skip a bit, brother.” This is what the Monty Python monk said to his fellow who was getting bogged down in the Book of Armaments. Same here. You may have to skip a bit because this is a very undisciplined post. Fortunately, I’ve divided it into three sections to make that easier to do. Skip right to section 3 for an immediate answer to this post’s title. The rest is just meandering to the punch line. Even section 3 has some meandering, but that is because it revolves around a personal experience and I’ve not yet tried to separate the ‘lesson’ from that experience:
(Section 1) We have some characters in the faith. You know who I mean. Bigger than life guys. Everyone likes them, but there's not much finery about them, not much decorum. Was Mickey Spillane one of that group? They tend to be old-timers, younger ones having had the outrageousness refined out of them.
So here is Herman, for example, giving a talk and he's making the point that people aren't perfect; even in Bethel they have their quirks, and to illustrate, he quotes some Bethelite he knew.....I forget which one....who when he was provoked, would use the word “damn.” “I don't give a damn!” Herman quotes him, drawing the words out.
Now, you know how when someone says something out of place there will be some nervous tittering in the audience? Well, there is, and Herman takes that as appreciation! So he repackages the line and runs it through again! “I don't give a damn!” He even did it a third time. “I don't give a damn!” Didn't they install a trap door in the platform next day?
My point, though, is not that repackaging should never be done, but that sometimes it should. And that's what I'm going to do now with a post I wrote about five years ago entitled “Why do Bad Things Happen?” It's buried way back there in the archives....who's going to come across it now? Yet it's among the experiences that got me blogging in the first place. The story it tells really took place, and with only minor modifications, it's an email I sent to a work colleague I was witnessing to from afar. A little light in tone, the way I like to write. So now I've dressed it up a bit, applied lipstick, and am running it through again, just like Herman!
A caution, however. It will only appeal to persons willing to explore what the Bible says on serious matters. You cannot be too firmly afflicted with "we are wise and learned adults, far too clever to be sold Adam and Eve. Who's next, Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck?" syndrome. Any discussion on why there is suffering must necessarily touch upon Adam and Eve. You just can't get around it. If you could, I would. It doesn't exactly square with what the scientists say, does it, yet the two stands do nudge closer together over time.
Moristotle, who is atheist, was firmly in the grip of the above syndrome, and he couldn't stand the post. He almost threw up. He declared it a "fantasy," aspects of which were "utterly repulsive," and the rest "not only not nice at all, nor even adolescent, but simply infantile." Of course, I took his concerns to heart, and wrote a revised post just for him entitled “Why Do Bad Things Happen? Updated for Atheists (Sort Of)” It's just how Paul might have written, I imagine, if he'd been faced with the same audience, in the spirit of “to the atheists I became an atheist.” (1 Cor 9:19-22)
Oh how I miss Moristotle! What glorious, spectacular rows we used to have! What creative posts came of it, both on his blog and mine! Moristotle was well-read. And thoughtful. And he had many interests in life. Atheist though he was, he didn't fly the scarlet Atheist letter A on his blog, probably because he knew Nathaniel Hawthorne wouldn't like it. These are the types of atheist you want to talk to, but alas, they don't hang around for too long. They inevitably reflect that this life is short, that it's all there is, that there's many things they yet want to do in it, and do they really want to spend those brief remaining years arguing with an intransigent “theist”? So they exit the stage, and leave only the ideological cranks in their wake, snarlpits of condescension and rudeness, who positively live to argue, who imagine they have a lock on “reason,” and who are so persistently unpleasant that it's hard to endure them for long. Moristotle, different in every respect, was my house atheist for a time, and he never even applied for the position; he just naturally assumed it with his trademark flair and wit. Though even he, if another Witness blogger would chime in on the discussion, would hand him his head on a platter. Alas, he has moved on. They all do. Only the snarlpits remain.
But we digress. Without further ado, here is that resurrected post, Why Do Bad Things Happen? (Bible reader's version):
(Section 2) Carpooling to work, Bill was pounding me into jelly with non-stop drivel about, of all things, pornography. I was not feeling well, had insufficient sleep and the beginnings of a headache. Jake was either snoozing in the back seat or wisely playing possum. I pretended to be deaf, but Bill was wise to it and kept talking! I considered piercing my eardrums so as to actually be deaf, or breathing in exhaust so as to die, but couldn't muster the nerve.
It seems there is a certain woman who has forsaken the arts, at which she was successful, to make hard-core pornography, at which she is astoundingly successful, and she has become wealthy. This has caught Bill's attention and it is the subject of the day
. ....Tom, she was a concert pianist and she was successful. Now she makes hard core porn and she is super-rich. I don't understand how she could do it. I mean, she was not just some loser, but she was a concert pianist. I just can't understand how a concert pianist could give that up and start a new living making hard core pornography. (Jake and I have no trouble understanding it) I think these people in Hollywood are so super-rich and powerful that they just laugh at all the rest of us, with our quaint and backward little bourgeois notions of morality. I mean, maybe this is just the capitalist system...maybe this is just free enterprise. Where's the harm, anyway. I mean, if it doesn't hurt anyone, what is wrong with it, anyway? Why not, if it makes people happy? But what I don't get is how she, who was a concert pianist......now, Bill is very predictable and you can fill in the rest for yourself and not be too far off
Of course, I don't want to imply that Bill is a regular consumer of hard core porn. I've no reason to believe that, and I don't believe it. Of course not! It is simply today's topic. Actually, the three of us ride together a lot, and women are a frequent topic of discussion. Not obscenely, you understand, and not specifically, but just generically, as a species. Both of these guys defer to me, since I have been married forever, so they assume I know a lot.
On the job, I resolve not to put up with the same drivel on the drive home. How much can a guy take? But once back in the car, my headache, held at bay during the workshift, returns with a vengeance, and I also begin to feel carsick. Bill, of course, never doubts that I am eagerly awaiting the next phase of his harangue, and picks up where he left off! Desperate measures are called for.
.....Hard core porn. I mean, where's the harm in it? Isn't it just our petty ideas of morality, which the super-powerful rich people in Hollywood just laugh at? Tom, I think they just laugh at us. And where is the harm in it?......Without warning, I hit him hard with a right punch: "Bill, don't be an idiot! Of course it's harmful! It interferes with a normal relationship with a woman, because all your thoughts are debased!“ He is not fazed! He keeps coming at me!...Yeah, but...if people don't mind, I mean if they find enjoyment...how can it be harmful? What is really wrong with it? .....I land another hard right! "Damn it, Bill, we just came from the job, where about half of the folks are women. You go back and explain to them how wonderful hard core porn is...see if you can persuade them how it doesn't hurt anyone"......Yes!! If only for a moment, he is stopped. Jake, from the back seat, explodes in laughter....he is beginning to sense a good fight, and he perks up.
But Bill is far from down and out. He regroups! ......a concert pianist, who used to play the concert piano in front of a concert piano audience! What I don't understand is....
I feigt with my right, but this time I hit him hard with my left, out of nowhere and completely unexpected! ....."Bill, what really upsets me is that we should die! Why should people die after only 70 or 80 years, when there are some turtles that live 150 years. I'd like to live forever and never die. What do you think of that!!??" (Now, this has nothing to do with anything, but if we must talk, it is going to be on my subject, not porn) ....He staggers! He looks for the gutter, but he has lost the thread of conversation.......After a pause: I don't know why the hell a person would want to live forever, or even just five more minutes on this crappy earth! The way life is today it is not worth living! [He's not a joyful guy, this Bill.] Is this life just some kind of a joke that God is playing on us? I think he must be laughing at us. I mean, what's the purpose of all of this?
With the right combination of moves, I could dominate this fight. I take a gamble:.....
"Bill! I could explain it all to you, but I'm not going to because you'll interrupt!" ......Bullseye!!! Jake splits his sides laughing. "I could explain it to you, but you'll interrupt," he mimics. Bill is speechless. He stumbles a bit, even briefly goes back to the porn star, but it is no good! The subject has been changed. By and by, he asks what is this explanation about the purpose of life.
(Section 3) Could it be? Is he really going to shut up? Gingerly, I lay down a foundation. "The first thing that you've got to understand is that God did not put humans on earth because he wanted them somewhere else. The earth is not a proving ground from which to launch people into heaven or hell. It was meant to be a permanent home, and people were created to live forever on it." Silence. It looks like I may really have his attention!
"Secondly, Bill, while I am explaining some things, you are going to hear things that you disagree with, but you cannot say so! For example, I will speak about Adam and Eve. You are going to want to say: "I don't believe in Adam and Eve." You cannot say it! You must wait until I am done, see if it hangs together, and then afterwards, if you still want, you can say: I don't believe in Adam and Eve." Again, not a word. It really seems like he is listening, and Jake too, for that matter.
And with that, I lay out the following scenario for them. And not just for them, but also for whoever reads this. Perhaps it will seem reasonable to you, and perhaps not. Let me know. Having prepared the earth to support physical life, God creates all life we see, including humans. As one perceptive person put it: "As almost a selfless act, to the extent of….I have life, perhaps I will create more life, so others can enjoy it as I do." In a nutshell, it could not be explained much better.
Still, happy living will depend on their recognition of their Creator's authority, his rightness, the need for obedience to him regarding questions of how to live and how to govern themselves as they grow in number. Not that God's going to control every minute aspect of their lives. Indeed, he has granted them free will. He has not programmed them as one might program robots…they can choose their course. And while that makes a wrong course possible, it also makes a right course so much more meaningful. After all, how meaningful is someone's love if you know they are programmed so they can't behave any other way?
To some extent the obedience that Adam rightly owes God parallels that of a child toward it's parents. The child for many years will encounter situations with which it is unfamiliar, that only the parents will be able to properly assess. Assuming the parent holds the child's best interests at heart, obedience is therefore a very good thing. Now, the child will one day become the equal of the parent, and the need for obedience fades. Humans will never become the equal of God, so with God the need for obedience never disappears, even though God wants us to continually gain wisdom from experience.
You may know that the Bible account, in the first three chapters of Genesis (If you haven't read the Bible, fear not. Few people have) says that God puts a tree, called the tree of the knowledge of good and bad, in the garden of Eden, and tells Adam and Eve not to eat from it. And, in no time at all, they do. Now, what does that mean? Does it mean that before eating off the tree, the first humans couldn't distinguish between good and bad, right and wrong? Plainly, that cannot be. How would they know it is right to obey the command and wrong to disobey? Nor does the fruit have anything at all to do with sex, as some have been told.
Back to the prior illustration, one might say that the child looks to the parent for standards as to what is good and what is bad. It is good to eat vegetables, to wash hands, to learn to read, to be in bed not too late. It is bad to play in the street, to eat only candy, to run with scissors, and so forth. But, if the young child were to absolutely rebel, one way to put it poetically would be to say that the child will now decide for itself what is good and bad....it will no longer look to its parents.
It is in this sense that eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and bad serves to illustrate those first humans rejecting God's right to decide what is right and wrong, good and bad, in favor of making their own rules. By eating from the tree, they are saying that they don't need God telling them what to do, they will decide for themselves! They reject God's sovereignty, his right to rule, his right to set standards. Now, what is God going to do about it?
Of course, he can flatten them all and start over, or give up on the whole notion of creating humans. That shows who's stronger. But that matter's never been in doubt. The question that has been raised is: who is correct? God or those first people? Can they really govern themselves successfully so that neither God nor anyone else ought interfere, or is self-rule an ability they do not have? Better to settle this question and thus salvage the original project.
Essentially, God says: Alright…. I say you cannot rule yourselves. You insist you can. Try it. I will give you this much time (hold our you hands about one foot apart, a distance that can represent the time God allows) It will be all the time you will need to make good on your claim. During that time, as you increase in number, you are free to organize and govern yourselves, divide or unite yourselves any way you see fit and can manage. Accept or reject standards I offer, devise your own ways of living, your own economies, your own religions. Discover science, and see if you can harness it to improve your lot. I will not interfere. At the end of that time, we will see if you have been able to make good on your claim of independence.
Now, as the Bible presents matters, we are nearing the end of that time. We don't have a precise timetable, but we do have many indications that point to this general time period. And, not to deny that there are a few bright spots here and there...people have learned to clean up after their dogs, for instance...but I don't think anyone can point to the overall human record with pride. It's been one long chronicle of butchery and suffering, injustice and poverty, hatred and selfishness, climaxing so that today the question is seriously asked: will humans destroy themselves. We all know of people who choose not to bring children into the world, so inhospitable does it appear.
So there comes a point when God can say: Enough. Case closed. The question has been answered. He can bring about his own kingdom rule, he can remove those opposed, and he can see his original purpose toward earth come back online. All this without negating the free will he has endowed his creation with, (among the things most people cherish is freedom of choice) and without any permanent damage to those who have suffered in the past, since there is provision of resurrection.
Furthermore, the issue, once settled, becomes a standard for the future, just as a Supreme Court decision becomes a precedent. Should some future whiner make the same claim about self-rule, the experiment does not have to repeat. In time, since everlasting life is the object, the time spent in self-rule and human suffering recedes and comes to represent an insignificant amount of time, like a bad dream of long ago.
And then there is some stuff about how conditions will change under kingdom rule, and a little etc, and thus ends my speech.
Silence. It, or at least parts of it, has struck home.
But, by and by, Bill cranks up again.
Now you must understand that, physically, I feel horrible. My headache has gone migraine, and the ride has made me nauseous. When I am later dropped off at the meet spot, I don't get into my car, but instead walk a few laps around the parking lot, trying to steady myself before the drive home.
The next scene is straight from the movies! How often, after the hero has beaten the foe and has turned his back...exhausted...does that foe.....gasp! Look out!....impossibly rise up for one last blow, which will surely find its mark except for the completely unexpected intervention of some third party....say, the woman in distress, or a bad guy just turned good, or an up-to-this-time ambiguous character. And so it is that way in the car!
......What I don't understand, Bill says, is what is the purpose of all this suffering.... how can God allow all of......
Jake comes to the rescue!!! "Bill, Tom just explained all of that!! he says. Weren't you listening?" ....Bill next says something about evolution, and again it is Jake: "Wait! he says. This is something I can chime in on. I used to believe in evolution but I don't anymore...not because of religion, but because of science. Evolution doesn't make any sense because of"......and he starts into a discussion on DNA and some other science things. Thus the two of them talk for awhile, while I try to nurse my head and stomach, hoping I do not die. [I did not]
There is an epilogue. A week or two later, about ten of us were at another jobsite. From the other side of the area, I can hear Bill complaining to someone: .......What I don't understand is what is the purpose of this life. Is this some sort of joke that God is playing? Is he just laughing at us........"Bill! I interject, I explained all that to you...don't be carrying on as if you don't have a clue!" My ally, Jake, roars with laughter." He did!" Jake says. "It made sense, too! Don't worry, Tom, I believe you!"
So I'm batting 500. It could be worse.
****** The bookstore